At the end of the 1970 World Series it was generally conceded that all such future encounters between the American and National League champions until at least the year 2000 would involve the Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds. Oh, age might sneak up from behind and do a little damage to the Orioles, but Cincinnati's team was so young and so good it would probably last forever.
It is now the middle of March, only five months since the Big Red dynasty was in full bloom and still weeks before Opening Day, yet suddenly everybody is running around the state of Florida shouting something that sounds strangely like "The Dodgers! The Dodgers!" There hasn't been such a spontaneous jump on the bandwagon since Clint Hartung became the new Babe Ruth in 1947. Temporarily.
But the Dodgers hardly appear to be temporary. At a recent dinner in St. Petersburg, Alex Grammas, the third-base coach of the Reds, spoke to Al Campanis, the Dodger vice-president in charge of player personnel. The two conversed in Greek. "It's such a beautiful language," Campanis said later. "Alex said, 'I understand you have it all.' I told him, 'Alex, we might not have it all, but we have most of it.' "
When the Reds met the Dodgers last week in an exhibition game in Tampa there was a feeling in the air not normally associated with spring training. Before the game players sat in their dugouts to watch the other team bat and take infield and outfield practice, instead of going back to their clubhouses. In the game itself the Dodgers, lifted by five runs batted in by Wes Parker (see cover), beat the Reds 13-2, which could have an adverse psychological effect on a troubled Cincinnati team that lost its first five exhibition games and had to hang on desperately to win one by a score of 9-8. The Dodgers, on the other hand, serenely went on to win six straight.
Not too much should be made of spring training games, of course, but it is obvious that Los Angeles finally has a team that can hit a baseball past the pitcher's mound. This is in happy contrast to all those years when a Dodger rally consisted of an infield single, two stolen bases and a wild pitch, the glory years of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. (When Drysdale was informed once that Koufax had pitched a perfect game, Don asked, "Did he win?")
But times change, and last year the Dodgers' baseball personality began to change, too. They missed tying the hard-hitting Reds for the highest team batting average in the majors by .0001 (.2702 to .2703). Parker, Willie Davis and Manny Mota hit over .300, and Bill Grabarkewitz was among the league leaders until a slump in August pulled him down to .289. And now Manager Walter Alston has a crop of splendid young ballplayers coming up after a season of impressive hitting in the Pacific Coast League, where the Dodgers' Spokane farm club won its division by 26 games.
Alston has been trying out his new Dodger team in various lineups to see if he really has all that versatility. The team is pliable partly because it's so young. Grabarkewitz was asked what had impressed him the most about his first full major league season. "It's strange," Bill said, "but what I remember most is that on the final day of the season I looked around at the lineup we had on the field. I was 24, and I was the oldest man out there." Centerfielder Willie Davis says, "We've got good things up and down the lineup. Richie Allen came to us from St. Louis, and he has the feeling he's with a winner. We have speed and defense and now we have power, too. We can go for a big inning. A hitter can give himself up and know that something is bound to happen to get a runner home."
Davis, once little more than a fast-footed enigma, has put two .300 years back to back. He led the league with 16 triples in 1970, stole 38 bases, batted .305 and knocked home 93 runs. "I don't think the Reds are going to be as tough this year," Willie says. "They all had good years together in '70, and that's hard to repeat. They got off flying and never stopped. It helped them to play in Crosley Field, too, but that new, big ball park they have now won't give up as many homers as Crosley Field did."
Allen's presence raises questions about the Dodger lineup. His best position is first base, but Parker is the best defensive first baseman in the game. Gil Hodges, who should know, calls Wes "the man" at that position. Since the Dodgers may experiment with youngsters at second, short and third, Parker's fielding superiority will be more important than ever this year. Last season he accepted 1,630 chances and made only seven errors. Over the last five years he has had only 27. Thus Allen will play left field for Los Angeles, which should not disturb the fans too much since the Dodgers haven't had a good fielder out there for a long time. Like since Zack Wheat.
Parker's emergence as one of the stars of the National League has been very sneaky. Through 1968 his lifetime major league average was under .250. Then he hit .278 in 1969 and last year exploded to .319, fifth in the league, while batting in 111 runs. Joe Torre of the Cardinals, a close friend of Parker ("as close as you can get with a guy on another team," according to Torre), says, "You used to be able to get Wes out without throwing him a strike. He had a lot of blind spots, and he would swing at bad Ditches. He's different now. He's a good hitter. Good hitters ride out the slumps and don't panic—they don't change everything around and get so messed up they can't do anything. Wes has that kind of confidence. Still, for a guy to drive in 111 runs with only 10 homers is almost unreal."
Indeed it is, but Parker did it—the first major leaguer in 20 years to bat in so many runs with so few homers, which reflects his determination with men on base. He says that Psycho-Cybernetics helped him get rid of an earlier fear of failure. Psycho-Cybernetics and Alston.
"There were times," he says, "when I thought I would never hit, but Alston stuck with me through five lean years. I owe a lot to Walt. Unless anyone has experienced how much fun it can be to hit in the majors he wouldn't understand the pleasure you can derive from it."
Now 31, Parker is a strikingly handsome bachelor who has "five or six master's points" in bridge, shoots golf to a 10 handicap, spends time at the Music Center in Los Angeles, travels extensively during the off season, is considered to be a budding radio announcer and admits candidly, "I'm not an entrepreneur. I haven't made any big investments. Until two years ago I never made more than $25,000 in salary." (His contract this year is said to be close to $70,000.)
"I enjoy different facets of life," he says. "Like music and reading. And this winter I got involved in something that is probably the most rewarding thing I have ever done." He and teammate Jim Lefebvre learned as much as they could about narcotics and spoke on the subject to more than 20,000 junior high school students. "We tried to tell kids that drugs are the wrong approach. There is a lot of talk about athletes taking pep pills—greenies—and yet there are only a few isolated cases in baseball. They have been blown way out of proportion. I never tried one in my life and wouldn't want to. The human body is remarkable in what it can cope with and respond to without any help. When we talked to the kids we tried to show them that people were concerned about their problems. I got a letter from a 10-year-old girl who said that she felt safe because somebody cared enough about her to be interested. That's enough to make the entire thing worthwhile."
In Parker's view, this year's Dodgers will be "able to jump out in front in games because now we have hitters that produce runs. We are counting heavily on Richie Allen, but we also have more young talent on this team than at any time since I have been with the club. Our spirit is good, and it's going to get better. And remember, Maury Wills hates to lose."
Parker moved into the locker next to Wills several seasons back. "I like the way Maury thinks," Wes says. "He inspires me. He'll do anything to win a ball game." Ask Wills about Parker and the veteran shortstop says, "The time has come when some of these young Dodgers should ask to locker next to him."
Last year as Cincinnati pulled rapidly away in the National League West, the Dodgers had trouble getting out of the garage. They lost five straight, three of them at home to the Reds.
"We had a terrible start," admits Parker. "The first five times we played the Reds they beat us. It was depressing, because they just plain beat us. We had no excuses."
The Dodgers finally began to come together in June, and by the end of the year the Reds were the only team with a winning record against them. "This club had as much spirit as any I've ever seen," Alston said. "Even though we were so far behind, the kids never quit. I was proud of them." Bringing the Dodgers back to respectability from that bad start would have been a hopeless task for some managers but, says the Reds' Sparky Anderson, "When you rate managers you take Alston out of the group and put him on a very high shelf and then talk about the other 23 guys." Alston's Dodgers ended up by winning 87 games; the Pirates won the league's Eastern Division with 89.
Many believe the 1970 season was Alston's finest as a manager, but his performances are hard to compare, since he has won with all types of teams. He has probably stolen a couple of pennants with his shrewdness and knowledge of the game, which are allied to a temperament that is almost perfect for handling highly competitive athletes. He doesn't break up locker rooms after defeats or rant and rave during arguments with umpires. "Of all the records in baseball," Richie Allen said last week, "one of the biggest has got to be Alston's. That man has had 18 one-year contracts from the same club." He has managed the Dodgers as long as the fabled Wilbert Robinson did, and only Connie Mack, John McGraw and Cap Anson managed one club longer.
It will be interesting to watch Alston with Allen this year. The Dodgers have not had a genuine home run hitter since they traded Frank Howard in 1965. When in 1969 Allen maneuvered himself into a position where Philadelphia had to trade him the Dodgers were tempted but backed off. "We thought about him," Al Campanis said at the time. "We wanted his bat but not his personality. We would have been making a travesty of everything that Dodger spirit represents."
Allen went to the St. Louis Cardinals instead. Then last season when the Cardinals, in turn, put Allen on the market, the Dodgers changed their minds about the personality problem. Allen had behaved well in St. Louis and he hit 34 homers with 101 runs batted in, but the Cards finished a very bad fourth and felt they needed defensive help. Allen's name was first brought up in talks between the Dodgers and Cardinals in August. "Bing Devine and I talked about Allen during the baseball meetings in Montreal," says Campanis. They continued their discussion at the American League playoffs between Baltimore and Minnesota and on the last day of the playoffs announced that Allen had been traded to the Dodgers for Second Baseman Ted Sizemore and Catcher Bob Stinson. People said, "Allen for who?"
For the first time in years, Allen showed up at spring training on time. He has been seen at 6 in the morning in Vero Beach taking batting practice from the Iron Mikes at the Dodger camp. ("Is he just coming out," the cynics ask, "or is he just getting in?")
"There's no doubt that this place is Zero Beach," Allen says, "but I don't mind. I've never felt so confident before. I feel like I did when I was a rookie. I see the chance to play with a winner, and for a change I'd like to be accused of being a winner."
Along with Allen, Los Angeles picked up another slugger in Catcher Duke Sims, who hit 23 homers last year with Cleveland, but the Dodgers are still without a lot of experience—although heavy with such fascinating but generally unfamiliar names as Sandy Vance, Doyle Alexander and Bobby Valentine. They may catch the Reds with their morale down—Cincinnati has had a lot of contractual problems, which could carry some bitterness over into the season—but Sparky Anderson is not ready to believe that will happen. "I've heard about the Dodgers," Anderson says. "I know they're good and that they have some fine prospects, but I'm not ready to throw in any sponges. I'm not going to predict that we're going to win, because that can be a silly thing to do. When we lost Bobby Tolan with that torn Achilles' tendon we lost a lot. Even so, if the Dodgers are going to take the pennant they better be prepared to win an awful lot of ball games."
With Davis, Parker, Allen, Wills and a horde of improving talent named Sandy Doyle Valentine, they might do just that.